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The Development of Greek Biography

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By Arnaldo Momigliano
Published by Harvard University Press (Expanded Edition, 1993)
156 pages softcover
ISBN 0674200411
Tracing the growth of ancient biography from the 5th century to the 1st century BC, Arnaldo Momigliano asks useful questions about the origins and development of Greek biography. By clarifying the social and intellectual implications of the fact that the Greeks kept biography and autobiography distinct from historiography, he contributes to an understanding of a basic dichotomy in the Western tradition of historical writing. This classic study is now reissued with the addition of Momigliano's essay "Second Thoughts on Greek Biography".


External Reviews

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Internal Review

The Development of Greek Biography is an exceptional book, a one of a kind look at the development of Greek and Roman biography. The author Arnaldo Momigliano in the first place comes from an exceptionally scholarly family. Felice Momigliano and Attilio Momigliano are both noted to have produced studies within biographical essays. Felice Momigliano actually wrote a biography of Tolstoi.(pg. 4)

Greek and Latin biography is very hard to trace and very little is known. This makes ancient biography different from ancient political historiography.(pg. 8) Source criticism was attempted by Willamowitz and is later followed by generations after. What needs to be done that Momigliano sets out to do within his work is to question the very foundations of which earlier scholars like Willamowitz, Bruns, Misch, Leo, Dihle constructed their hypotheses. Momigliano analyzes the sources in a fresh mid to late 20th century perspective for another look at the evidence.(pg. 10)

Momigliano shows how modern biography flows. A tentative definition is put forth by Momigliano as "life of a man from birth to death". Differentiation of biography from autobiography is also sketched out. Autobiography means, "account of the life of a man who is living it". Autobiographies like biographies can be so made as to give the reader the shape of the whole life of the subject. (pg. 11) There are six fundamental paths that are characterized by pertinent questions. Momigliano attempts to answer the questions within the process of critiquing past foundations of thought on the subject.

  1. What is the date of earliest Greek biographies and autobiographies
  2. What is the relation between history and biography
  3. How did bios become formalized
  4. How did autobiography develop in relation to biography
  5. What is the relation between individual bios and collective bios
  6. What limits did biography belong to erudition rather than history(pg. 12-15)

Momigliano now deals with the work of Bruns, Misch, Leo and Dihle. Bruns thesis was that biographers of classical antiquity, like Thucydides and Livy characterize individuals indirectly, while Xenophon in Anabasis and Polybius express their biographies by characterization and judgments. Dihle thought a great personality was needed to spring forth biography, and Socrates provided. Momigliano then alludes to his future conclusions of biography being found just one hundred years before the death of Socrates. Leo started with Suetonius and Plutarch finding two different types used. Momigliano criticizes the work of Leo in questioning if his conclusions about biography being founded in Aristotle are correct.(pg. 16-22)

In chapter 2, Momigliano now attempts to find antecedents to Greek biography in the fifth century BC. His goals are two-fold and relate to biography and autobiography. To find biographies he searches for individuals isolated within extant texts. For autobiography Momigliano is looking for the writers past life, not expressions of present state of mind.(pg. 23) The fascinating character of Skylax who wrote about Heraclides, representing perhaps the eastern influence on Greek (auto)biography in the fifth century. We do not know what was in his book, but we do know it was about an individual. He also may have constructed autobiography, about his geographical explorations.(pg. 29) Xanthus is also a major figure. Both Skylax and Xanthus were Persian subjects and so are an underlying current throughout the chapter.(pg. 36) What is found is that biography nor autobiography is a literary genre.(pg. 38) There maybe some notions in the fifth century. But there is lack of evidence for any position other than the Greek (auto)biographical spirit had not yet been awakened.(pg. 41) This is probably my favorite chapter because of Sklyax and how Momigliano crafts asiatic influence from findings of him and others. Momigliano, while sketching the history of Skylax still casts a mysterious role for him as a person and his direct influence within Greek biography.

Chapter 3 searches for biography and autobiography within the fourth century BC. All aspects of literature is influenced by biography and autobiography. Again Momigliano jabs at the scholarship of Leo as opposed to others. Momigliano attacks the point of Leo that biography is found with Socrates. In fact Momigliano goes back further, even before Socrates to establish antecedents for Greek biography. It seems within The Development of Greek Biography there is a running praise, critique, and then praise and critique, and so on, of Leo's work.(pg. 45-46) Suggesting he was wrong at times, but also his important contribution to the area. Isocrates becomes a model, with Xenophon being highlighted throughout. Both are significant figures within Momiglianos view. The Socratics were really known more for their apologies.(pg. 60)

Chapter 4 now begins with Aristotle looking specifically at the Peripatetics instead of Alexandrian biographers. It is, by far, the longest chapter in the book. Continuing to catalog biographical material in the fourth century like chapter 3, but goes further to the first century BC and first century AD. There also is incorporated into the methodology an attempt to tentatively use an anachronistic source criticism. Taking from the second century AD or some other distant period Momigliano tries to read back into the first or second century BC. This is not a criticism per say because Momigliano is aware, calls it out and does not rely to heavily on the finding presented after using such techniques.

See Also